Slimantics: Real criminal justice reform means comprehensive changes

 

Slim Smith

 

 

This week's criminal justice summit in Jackson was hailed as a milestone moment in criminal justice reform, drawing speakers from both the political left and right in addressing a problem that both sides agree has had a devastating affect on our state. 

 

Mississippi's high rate of incarceration (third and fifth highest based on how the numbers are calculated) has, at long last, drawn some real bi-partisan attention. 

 

Among the speakers at the summit were Gov. Phil Bryant, who has called for "bold action" on criminal justice reform, although how "bold action" is defined is the most salient point. 

 

As is his custom, Bryant frames the need for reform by noting the progress that has already been made during his administration. The number of people in state prisons had decreased by roughly 4,000 since he took office, although it's unclear exactly what Bryant has had to do with any of that. 

 

The fact is, progress in reducing the prison population pretty much mirrors what is happening nation-wide. There is little to celebrate, Bryant's claims notwithstanding. 

 

As of November 1, there were 21,174 people held in our state prisons (fifth highest rate per 100,000 in population) and roughly 30,000 prisoners total when those held in local, county and federal custody are factored into the equation. That's the third highest incarceration rate in the nation. 

 

In the month of August, 13 people died in state custody and no explanation for that has been provided by the state's Department of Corrections. 

 

Whatever "progress" the Governor claims, it can only be described as incremental and, in the big scheme of things, insignificant. 

 

Last year, the first step toward meaningful reform -- House Bill 387 -- passed through the Legislature, a law that prevented people on parole/probation from being returned to custody for an inability to pay fines. The bill also allowed for those on probation/parole to meet with the parole/probation officers via Skype, which is a big deal for those former inmates for whom transportation is an issue. 

 

That's an important step, but it's just the first. 

 

Real reform means less punitive sentencing for those whose crimes warrant incarceration. It means more alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders (our state's drug courts have seen funding yo-yo back and forth almost on a whim). It means providing an adequate number of public defenders for those who cannot afford attorneys (there is always money for more district attorney's offices, but strangely little to none for increasing the numbers of public defenders). 

 

It means restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentences. It means bringing uniform sentencing to our courts -- a crime committed in one county should carry the same sentence it does in another. It means providing tax incentives for businesses who will agree to hire former inmates. It means providing better educational and vocational programs for those who are incarcerated. 

 

It means shifting the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation. 

 

It means looking at this problem not just in terms of reducing the short-term costs. In fact, some of these measures will require more funding to implement, which will certainly test our resolve. 

 

It also means considering the idea of "public safety" from a more enlightened perspective. 

 

Public safety does not benefit from harsh sentences and harsh conditions. It does not benefit from families who are separated for unreasonable amounts of time simply to satisfy the misguided fear and anger represented by the old "eye for an eye" attitudes. 

 

The life of an ex-convict is harsh even under the best of circumstances. To be a convicted felon means taking a place at the end of every line. It means fewer opportunities, less hope and less incentive to "make good." 

 

Each year, the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars to prosecute and imprison those who have violated the law, but that cost is exponentially higher when the effect on a family's household income is considered. And there are some costs associated with excessive punishment that cannot be calculated -- the human costs and the costs to society. 

 

If the Governor does indeed want bold action, the Legislature should take him at his word. 

 

It's time for real reform, not just the appearance of reform. 

 

We've seen far too little of the former and far too much of the latter.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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